RAF bombing devastates the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah
27 May 1924
Today in 1924, the RAF initiated what it described as the ‘intensive bombing’ of the town of Sulaymaniyah in the kurdish region of north eastern Iraq. The local governor, Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, was reported to have been raising illegal taxes, which the British feared might be the first stage in a planned insurgency against colonial rule. As a warning to desist, 29 bombing raids were carried out against the town’s inhabitants by five squadrons of aircraft over a period of 48 hours from 0530 hours on 27 May, including at least one raid conducted during the night.1 Two of the squadrons (No 45 and 70) were equipped with the latest twin engined Vickers Vernon aircraft, allowing for an increased bomb load of over half a ton per aircraft.2
Officially the target was supposed to be a ‘well defined area in the centre of the town’ but aircraft were forbidden to fly lower than 3,000 feet at which height it was difficult to bomb with any accuracy. Moreover, only one aircraft in each squadron was supplied with a photograph of the bombing area. Nor does it seem that every effort was made to bomb precisely on target. Arthur Harris, commander of 45 squadron, cheerily reported that his aircraft had dropped three canisters of incendiary bombs ‘from one end of Sulaimaniya (sic) to the other.’3 There is no record of any disapproval expressed at this confession. Instead Harris was promoted soon afterwards and went on to command the controversial saturation bombing of German cities during the Second World War.
The predictable consequence of such indifference to precise targeting was extensive destruction across Sulaymaniyah. An official RAF damage report estimatied the number of houses destroyed at between 50 and 100 and boasted that a large portion of the town’s ancient souk had been completely gutted.4 However, the RAF was disappointed that the damage hadn’t been more extensive. The roofs of the buildings were too sturdy for incendiaries and Harris complained that many had merely bounced off, but on the other hand the roofs were considered too frail for delay action high explosive bombs. It was agreed that the bombing might have been ‘more effective’ without a two and half second delay. Air Vice Marshall John Higgins, the senior RAF officer at Air HQ Baghdad, therefore recommended that when ‘a similar suitable target presented itself,’ they should be set to detonate immediately on impact.5
- Air HQ Baghdad, 19 May 1924, Operation Order No 12. Reference Air 591/226 accessed at the National Archives, AIR5/1254
- Conference at Air HQ Baghdad, 31 May 1924, accessed at the National Archives, AIR5/1254
- Notes on Reported Damage to Sulaimaniyah, compiled from reports received up to 11.6.24, accessed at the National Archives, AIR 5/1254
- Conference at Air HQ Baghdad, 31 May 1924 Op. cit.
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